- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

It took more than a year, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finally issued an Engineering Analysis Report last week regarding the soundness of those Firestone tires that Ford Motor Co. had argued were the root cause of an unusually high number of rollover-type accidents and nearly 200 fatalities involving Ford SUVs equipped with these particular tires. Firestone and its parent company, Bridgestone, had vehemently argued that it was a design defect of the Ford Explorer, not its tires, that was the root cause of the accidents. According to NHTSA, however, the tires are at fault.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, which looks into these things, concluded that Firestone's ATX and Wilderness AT tires are indeed subject to a much higher rate of tread- separation failure than would be considered normal. The defect has to do with a structural/design aspect of the affected tires that renders them more susceptible to catastrophic belt separation particularly when subjected to heavy loads and demanding conditions, as is routine on a vehicle such as the Ford Explorer and other mid-to-full-size SUVs. The danger is magnified on these vehicles because SUVs are inherently less stable, due to their higher ground clearance, than ordinary passenger cars. Thus, when a catastrophic tire failure occurs, the vehicle is more likely to veer out of control or roll over.

Under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, NHTSA must objectively demonstrate that a safety-related defect exists before a recall may be ordered. Based on the finding of its Engineering Analysis Report, NHTSA said it "has made an initial decision that a safety-related defect exists in Firestone Wilderness AT P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 tires manufactured to the Ford specifications prior to May 1998 that are installed on SUVs… . [T]he tread separation failure of the (Wilderness AT and ATX) tires is far worse than that of their peers, especially the Goodyear Wrangler RT/S tires used as original equipment on many Ford Explorers."

Still, the NHTSA report says nothing definitive about Firestone tires made after May 1998, because it may take several years of real-world experience and data collection to learn whether these tires are similarly defective. However, that "data" and "experience" may come in the form of another 100-200 deaths caused by catastrophic tire failure. Given the weight of evidence against the Wilderness AT and ATX tires and Firestone's appalling stonewalling and blame-shifting perhaps a more aggressive course is warranted. It seems reasonable to at least consider a recall of all Firestone-branded tires of the Wilderness AT and ATX type, irrespective of their date of manufacture.

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